Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works Season 1 Review

As far as Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works goes, it’s among the higher class of recent shounen anime. While the plotting can be aimless at times, the story never fails to entertain. Beautiful animation paired with ambitious battle choreography greatly aides the show’s entertainment value. Does it still meet the hype?

Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works is a long awaited anime adaptation of a famous Visual Novel of a similar name, produced by “Type-Moon”, penned by Kinoku Nasu, and adapted by “Ufotable”. For the uninitiated, a “Visual Novel” is a choose-your-own-adventure style “video game”. The “game” is composed of character sprites, backgrounds, text, and a select amount of detailed artworks meant for specific scenes in the storyline. On occasion, choices will pop up in the text, in which the player is allowed to split the story into different routes. This particular anime adaptation focuses on one of the Visual Novel’s three routes: “Unlimited Blade Works”.

In each route, and the anime, Fate/Stay Night starts with the same premise:

The story takes place in modern Japan. Rin Tohsaka, the sole heir to a prestigious family of mages, follows her father’s footsteps and partakes in an age-old battle called the “Holy Grail War”. In this battle, seven mages summon “Servants”, or heroic spirits from the past or legend, and duke it out with one another. If either the servant or master dies, they are eliminated from the war. However, she soon finds out that Shirou Emiya, a boy from her high school, has gotten himself involved in the battles, and unexpectedly saves him when he is fatally injured. Before long, the two set out to strike down the conspiracies surrounding the Holy Grail War.

Six years prior to the announcement of Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works, an adaptation by “Studio DEEN” aired, focusing on the first, and least popular route of the original game: “Fate”. The lack of popularity following the route notwithstanding, it was both a critical and audience failure. Characters that the fans adored were widely considered bland and unremarkable, the animation was dull and uninspired, and the story was an odd blend of plot points from all three, unrelated routes. After its release, fans bemoaned its existence, knowing that the critical failure of the story on-screen most likely meant there would be no future attempts at adaptation. They would have to be stuck with what they had.

So, the news of a new adaptation by the well regarded “Ufotable” was unsurprisingly met with great joy and anticipation. Months passed, and the hype spread to the uninitiated as well. Unless the show somehow screwed up, it was going to be very, very popular.

It didn’t screw up. The adaption was highly regarded as one of the best shows of its season.

How did it succeed?

The first reason that comes to mind is the ambitious production set given to the show. It looks absolutely stunning. Every background is intensively detailed, every character design smooth and stylistic, every bit of color deliberate and full of life. Important scenes are coated with popping red and purple hues, whereas lighter scenery is created with pleasant, cool colors swarming in the background. The mere choice of color the characters wear is meant to add some to the tone of the scene or setting. Unlike the original adaptation of the visual novel, character line-art is short and smooth, letting the finer colors enveloping the characters give them form. The designs are never too detailed, nor are they too simplistic. Every aspect of the artistic design blends together perfectly, creating sweet eye-candy for the viewers to behold.

All the greater when the animation is so completely fluid. Although, like most anime, the animation is slow and deliberate, there is never a dull movement from the characters. Little animations like sitting down, standing up, and turning around always feel complete. Many anime, including some acclaimed titles such as Attack on Titan, have a tendency of saving their budget for more important scenes – making simple things such as head turns as little as three frames, in some instances. As Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works has a reputation regarding its budget, it never has the need to do this.

This makes the fight scenes spectacular. The animation never slows down during these. The coloring alters to fit the eminent rush of battle. The camera moves with the characters in a bombastic rush, but never cuts them out of the picture. The battles themselves are a spectacle. The servants rush into each other like magnets, yet never collide. The point of view shifts to and fro the participants, but neither slows down the action or falls behind it. The color and lights show, packed with the adrenaline rush of these battles, is enough to entice any action connoisseur. These fight scenes occur fairly often within the show, as well.

A bit too often, I’ll have to add; while the fight scenes are wonderful, they generally make up the majority of the story’s structure. When the plot needs to advance, a servant will drag Shirou and Tohsaka into battle. If they aren’t getting dragged into battle, they’re looking for masters causing trouble in the city. Most of the overarching plotline moves forward through the intervention of opponent servants and masters.

When a battle between characters is not going on, the story generally spends its time developing the growing relationship between characters, the growing moral disagreements between them, and the structure of the Holy Grail War and how magic works. This can be as fascinating as much as it is filler. The relationship between Tohsaka and Shirou is a pleasure to see unfold, as the two have an inexplicable chemistry between them that delves further into the concept of companionship than it does morality.

Morality is discussed quite often in the story. At times, this can be fascinating, but it can also be redundant. A particular issue that is brought up on innumerable occasion is “the ability to save everyone”. This has been portrayed in many works of fiction. A recent example is Spiderman, in which his adversary forces him to choose between saving a bus full of kids and saving his primary romantic interest. He eventually finds a way to save both, but the point is simple: make the selfless choice, or make the selfish choice. In Fate Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works, it’s not so simple. Shirou cannot even choose between 200 people on a boat, and 2000 people on another – but unlike Spiderman, he has to. This point is brought up on many, many occasions. While it’s interesting to contemplate, it is not necessary to think about it every time he engages in battle.

Nonetheless, the show as a whole is very entertaining. With the second season airing tomorrow, I am unable to say anything conclusive about it just yet. I can, however, say that I look very much forward to seeing what will come next.

For now, I’ll wait.


What should I review next?

Insurgent Review

A writer’s duty is not to replicate life – it is to interpret it, and write the interpretation down on paper. That is creativity. Unfortunately, Insurgent is not creative: it is a poor rehash of cliché and plot points derived from recent Young Adult titles such as Hunger Games.

Following up last year’s successful Divergent is Insurgent, putting the main character, Tris, on the run from society after being called out as the primary suspect in the first movie’s mass-brainwashing incident. This takes place five days after the first movie. Janine, who plays a Big Brother-like role for an unexplained reason, has set out to open a box containing an important message that could change the fabrics of society as it is.

There’s a catch, though: only Divergents can open the box, and they do so by passing five simulations. These five simulations reflect the values of each faction. This means that the Divergent must qualify for each of the five factions to open the box successfully.  However, it’s a risky enterprise, as the Divergent in question will die if they fail to open the box. Janine, having no problems with this, decides to collect Divergents and force them to participate in the simulations so that she can get to the center of the box.

There are some unanswered questions pertaining to the box: why does Janine care about it now, when it was never mentioned in the first movie? Why must the Divergents risk their lives to open the box? Why was the main character’s mother trying to keep such a society changing message from Janine? Once the actual message of the box is revealed, one can only think that thrusting it in Janine’s face is the best possible thing to do – why risk the lives of the protagonists to keep it away from her?

This brings up a major problem the franchise has: it’s always contriving every single detail of its storyline to give itself the best possible combination of suspense, death, and “heartbreak”. Insurgent will put its characters in ridiculous situations only to save them via deus ex machina. At one point in the movie, Tris is captured by the villains, with seemingly no way to get out of her situation. Luckily for her, her boyfriend also happens to be captured – so when his prison door is unlocked, and he has an opening, he can rescue her. It is not explained how or when he got captured – he just happens to be there.

If an important character dies, it’s in the most absurd, forcible, unrealistic manner possible. In Insurgent, no major protagonist deaths occur. As there is no need for it in the storyline, deus ex machine can be used to prevent any possible fatalities – so long as it isn’t the character’s time to die. On the other hand, in Divergent, both of the main character’s parents appear last second to save her, just to die shortly in an arbitrary encounter with unnamed enemies. Both of them die within five minutes of each other in unrelated but similar circumstances.

What’s most frustrating about these character deaths is that, while lacking any emotional depth or sensible pacing, they make up Tris’ entire character arc in Insurgent. The movie opens up to a dream sequence ala Hunger Games in which Tris imagines society punishing her for letting critical characters die. This goes back to the debacle involving her parents. Outside of dreams, antagonistic characters are always trying to convince Tris that she is deadly and murderous. This occurs at exactly the right time, in exactly the right way, to fuel her anger, frustration, and guilt. Sure is convenient that the villains know the exact kind of self-deprecating thoughts she has, isn’t it!

More frustrating is that the entire movie is trying to convince us that this is not the case: she is not monstrous, deadly, or murderous. She is frustrated and angry, but not outwardly so. In which case, how can the villains “nail” her inner core if she isn’t inwardly or outwardly monstrous, deadly, or murderous?

Simple answer: it’s easier to show the main character’s inner conflict when villains draw it out. Villains are able to draw it out because they’re supposed to be immoral and inhuman; that way we know that Tris isn’t wrong!

In spite of Shailene Woodley’s best efforts as Tris, her character arc is too shallow and predictable to work with. Written above is her arc in Insurgent: she’s guilty over the people she couldn’t save and angry at the people that killed them.  She gets over it through self-evaluation.  That’s it. No major relationship developments with other characters. No cat and mouse between her and Janine. No minor character quirks that makes her distinctive. What you see is what you get. As this is her only development, she feels like a side-character. Hence, this development feels like a side-plot. However, she is not a side-character, and this is not a side-plot; we follow Tris around for the majority of the movie – this is what we get. It’s repetitive, and it isn’t entertaining.

A thing about the main character – they’re the ones that develop and change the most throughout the course of the story. In the Divergent Series, the main character is the “chosen one” for many, many things. She’s a primary leader of the rebellion against Janine; she happens to be divergent; she’s the one that stops the mass brainwashing, she’s the one meant to punch out Janine; she happens to be the only Divergent capable of opening the box. At one point in the movie, Janine comments on her ability to break the box open: “Of course; it had to be Tris.”

Amidst the angst and drama the main character subtly poses, there’s nothing new to be learned about the society, or world, that we don’t already know. There are still five factions; there is still dishonesty and distrust throughout the factions; they’re still being completely duped by Janine, who is acting under the radar to “preserve society”; they’re still afraid of Divergents; there’s still that blatant social message about conformity and social order that has yet to be expanded upon since the first installment of the series. It’s all the same. It has yet to change.

Insurgent fails even as a basic action flick. Much of the action is dull: one early scene consists of them running away from enemies and getting shot at until they get away. Another scene is a series of punches on a train, in which the blows cannot be seen. The camera is shaky, despite the lack of movement. Even the big simulation, previewed gratuitously in trailers, in which Tris must save her mother, is blurry, unfocused, and anticlimactic.

There is nothing compelling about this material, exciting about its punches, or enticing about its visuals. The script lacks comic relief, yet has actors spat out cartoonish, unrealistic dialogue to extremes: on occasion, as if it were something out of Birdman, as if there was a hint of “subtlety” and “depth”; on others, as if they were reading from the archetype rulebook. In one scene, Janine, asking her “henchman” to find Divergents compatible to the box, says “find them – every last one of them,” as if reciting from Despicable Me: How to Be a Good Villain. In another, Tris’ brother reacts to the creations of the factionless: “This is factionless; this is insane,” like he had suddenly created a great character foil that had not yet already existed. Insurgent is obsessed with character role, rather than character.

Insurgent is a package containing a character that has no character, a villain who can only play a villain, action that fails to entertain, and social commentary that says very little about society. While one can say that this is an over-evaluation of a movie that only wishes to entertain, I’m afraid to say: no, it wishes to be more than mere entertainment. It truly believes itself to be utterly compelling material filled with emotional highs, earnest messages, and something to say about society as it is. It does none of this, but continues the way it’s always been: overly serious, dull, and contrivant.

Although Insurgent was two steps away from calling it quits by the end of the movie, a plot twist ensures the viewers that there is still more to come. The show must go on; the cow must be milked. Whereas The Divergent Series could have ended at number two, it will end at number four. But hey, that’s a good thing! It means more money for the producers, more entertainment for the fans, and more movies to skip for those who are neither.

I, for one, will not be seeing more of this.


What should I review next?

Because nobody else wants to bother with both.